Monday, December 18, 2006

Bring Me the Head of Mickey Mouse

[posted by Callimachus]

Odd, or perhaps not, that one of the first memories I have of a wider world than my family and household is being told of the death of Walt Disney, when I was 6. Disney died 40 years ago Friday. Here, Neal Gabler, an astute observer of contemporary popular culture, chronicles the bifurcation of Disney's reputation: Paragon of wholesomeness, or "not just an entrepreneur of junk but the progenitor of a certain mind-set that was dull and conformist and even dangerous."

This was ongoing during Disney's life, as Gabler makes clear. And as is typical, the argument about Disney's lack of complexity rolled over the actual complexity of what he accomplished:

What seemed most to repulse many intellectuals was the sense that Disney infantilized America by refusing to confront reality, and it was reality in all its complexity, agony and sordidness that the intellectuals seemed to revere as the very foundation of art and intelligence. The theme park was especially castigated for its neglect of American tensions. Disney encouraged Americans to inhabit an imaginative universe not unlike that of a child, where reality had been transformed into fantasy and its harm expunged. For this act of anti-art, he was to be eternally condemned.

There is, to be fair, some truth to the charge that Disney's career was devoted to perfecting reality rather than grappling with it, though there is another substantial body of evidence to the contrary. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, for instance, Disney was inundated with letters from outraged parents who felt that Snow White's flight through the woods or Pinocchio's excursion on Pleasure Island or the devil in "Fantasia" or Bambi's mother's death were all too real and terrifying and hardly a gloss. Disney would typically respond that he didn't make films for children and that, in any case, children had to learn to deal with the terrors of the world.

But for the sake of this article, Gabler limits himself to Disney's relationship to America, which somewhat distorts the picture. Disney has always, almost from the first, been a universal figure. The Germans, for instance, have a relationship with him that's as ambivalent as ours. And, like ours, it's become a tableau for their ambivalence about U.S.-driven pop culture generally.

Average Germans in the Weimar years embraced so many aspects of American life the Nazis could never manage to scrub them all out, hard as they tried. They danced to "decadent" jazz records from the States even after 1941. Mickey Mouse was so popular that he was emblazoned on the coat of arms of a German battalion. Which makes this U.S. propaganda poster sort of odd:

More recently, an Internet friend from Germany sent me a CD of some popular music from over there. And of course it contained the obligatory Ramstein song railing against "Amerika." Poisoning the world's cultures along with its environment. Lying to everyone. Blah, blah. At once point the singer starts hissing about Mickey Mouse.

While listening to this Mickey dissing, I had an '80s flashback to "Enemy Mine", a sci-fi flick in which Dennis Quaid is a starfighter who crash-lands on a barren world along with one of the reptilian bad guys, who acts through a make-up job straight out of Sid and Marty Krofft, and the two form a bickering buddy team.

The lizard guy talks sincerely about his religion, and the human guy pretends that the human religion is worship of Mickey Mouse, and so when the reptile gets pissed at him he starts insulting Mickey Mouse, which makes Quaid's character bust up laughing.

Davidge: You know something, Jerry? Your great Shismar ain't shit!

Jerry: [angry] Earthman, your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

[Davidge tries not to laugh]

Then the iguana gets pregnant. But it was the '80s, y'know?